Israel-PA peace process: Keep calm and carry on

After nine months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative hit its deadline last week with few outward signs of progress. With the talks at an impasse, Kerry declared that the US would need to “pause” in its efforts to mediate a final agreement. For the parties and their American mediator, the question is, what happens now? Despite the expiration of talks, the need for a two-state solution–with a secure, democratic and Jewish Israel living alongside a secure, viable and independent Palestinian state—is stronger than ever.

Yet without tangible progress toward that goal, the specter of unhelpful unilateral actions and a renewed cycle of bloodshed threatens to diminish the chances of reaching a final agreement. Nonetheless, the Israelis, Palestinians and Americans can take several concrete steps in the short term to ensure the viability of the two-state solution.

1. Keep the peace. Most importantly, they need to follow the medical maxim: do no harm. All parties must refrain from any actions that would damage the prospect of future negotiations, particularly as they relate to security. Israel is today experiencing the most peaceful period in its history, which Israeli officials have in significant measure credited to security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Preserving this cooperation is critical and it is incumbent on the PA to redouble its efforts. An eruption of violence would be destructive for both sides, and could prove fatal to the two-state solution.

To this end, Israel should refrain from taking any punitive measures against the Palestinians, such as withholding tax revenue collected on their behalf. Already facing economic hardship, the PA may not be able to survive if it can no longer pay its employees and provide basic public services. Its collapse could usher in a new wave of unrest and instability, allowing more violent groups to fill the vacuum. 

Similarly, the Americans must not jeopardize the PA’s viability by cutting funding or by shutting diplomatic offices in Washington. With the midterm elections around the corner, some in Congress may be tempted to prove their “pro-Israel” credentials by punishing the Palestinians. What they don’t realize is that doing so would be extremely harmful to Israeli security.

Israel must also do its part to keep the peace by cracking down against perpetrators of “price tag” attacks on Palestinians. Like the Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip who launch rockets against Israel, these elements seek to crush the two-state solution with another round of violence. This extreme minority must not be allowed to succeed.

Further, as recent comments from American officials have indicated, it is of paramount importance that Israel restrain settlement activity in the West Bank, especially in the sensitive areas in and around Jerusalem.

2. Palestinian reconciliation? Wait and see. On the matter of Palestinian reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the US and Israel should take a “wait and see” approach. Though the rival groups pledged to form a unity government in the coming weeks, the deal still has yet to be implemented, and Israel and the US should withhold judgment until the details are known. They should make clear that if the new government keeps its current agreements recognizing Israel and renouncing violence, the door to future diplomatic efforts will remain open.

3. Put a framework on the table. To test both sides’ seriousness, the US should put forward a framework agreement of its own, addressing the final status issues of borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, and mutual recognition. The solutions to these issues are well known and have the support of majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians. By laying out these consensus positions, the US could ignite a public debate on both sides, which could compel Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make clear whether or not they are willing to move forward.

4. Build pro-Israel support behind US leadership. Finally, the pro-Israel community here in the US has a critical role to play in building political support behind the American leadership necessary to resolve the conflict. As the renowned Israeli author David Grossman has remarked, “We cannot afford the luxury of despair.” Failure to achieve a two-state solution not only threatens Israeli and Palestinian interests, but also American ones. Though the current talks have ended without success, we must address the causes in a clear-eyed fashion without retreating to defeatism and the well-worn talking points of the past.

As they enter this “pause,” both sides can lay the foundations to make future negotiations more successful. By keeping the peace and with a US framework leading the way, next time can and must be different.

Richard M. Goldwasser is an attorney in Chicago and a member of J Street’s board of directors.